Reading the News for Better Fiction

Currently I am in research mode for a new book – one source of information is the news.  I do read the news daily and have some stories I follow.  I like to be informed about the world and I often find that something in a news story is relevant to a poem or story I am writing.

For example:

Here in Northern California the news story of the week is evacuation of the cities below the Oroville Dam. It’s distressing to read of all the people and lives disrupted by the emergency and my heart goes out to all those affected by this.  

For those who aren’t up on this here’s the short version:

The Oroville Dam sits on the Feather River in northeast California and impounds Lake Oroville, the second largest manmade lake in California with 3.5 million acre-feet of water – enough for some 25 million people and irrigates nearly 755,000 acres of farm land.  This winter has been wet, with rainfall totals far above normal.  By Saturday, Feb 11, the lake was approaching the top of the 770 foot tall dam.  The dam operators did the sensible thing and for the first time since 2011 opened the spillway.

Then the spillway started showing cracks and a gaping hole appeared.  No problem, there’s an emergency spillway, so the dam operators shutdown the spillway.  When water started to flow over the emergency spillway an epic erosion of the hillside started, and threatened to cause the spillway to fail and send a 30 foot wall of water downstream.  If that had happened we’d be reading about tens of thousands dead, missing and many cities washed downstream to the San Francisco Bay.  Instead officials decided to evacuate nearly 200,000 people.  In the end engineers were able to effect repairs, reopen the primary spillway, lower the lake level, and save Oroville.  How many fiction writers could come up with a story like that?

In the next weeks and months we’ll get more details and will read about all the finger-pointing on who failed to do what.  It could get interesting (upsetting if you’re a taxpayer here).

The novel I am working on is set in a post-apocalyptic California about 150 years from now.  There are a number of themes and stories I am weaving into my tale.  One of them is what happens to the dams and reservoirs after decades or centuries of neglect.  Is it possible that Hoover Dam will continue to be standing?  What about the many earthen dams, like Oroville?  Will they survive the extremes of weather – drought to flood?

These questions can be difficult to answer even with good research.  Heck, even the civil engineers who build these things don’t always know.  Like that whole emergency spillway thing –  from 1968 till Sunday, Feb 13, 2017 the pros said it would work just fine.  It didn’t.

That is one of the great things about following news stories and seeing how reality works out.  How many times have you heard, “You can’t make this up”?  

Well, that’s the value of reading news – it’s got stuff you can’t make up.  Especially if you can read political news without getting upset.  The other value is that you can learn about how people respond to extraordinary circumstances.  It’s a gold mine for a writer.

Of course, you can’t get all the facts from the news.  News reports are the result of research by journalists and often sensationalized to sell news papers or get views on a website.  However, each story offers something to the fiction writer and can be used as a basis for further research.  Many of the information sources used by the journalist are open to you the fiction writer.  Much of the information used in reporting the Oroville story came from two places: The California Department of Water Resources and the Butte County Sheriff’s Office.

In today’s internet world, both agencies have websites, video feeds and tons of cameras pointed at them – many of which end up on YouTube.  So if you find a story related to something you’re writing about it’s not hard to do your own fact checking and research.

And since we’re talking about writing fiction, don’t worry too much about misleading news or people lying.  That can be the best fiction.

I mean, what if the Oroville spillway was really destroyed by an alien spaceship landing in the wrong place?

Got to go, have a story to write.

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On Cultures: Religion and Holidays in Fantasy Fiction

Creating a fantasy world is challenging. In urban fantasy and other fantasy and science fiction genres, authors can rely on real religions, cultures, and holidays to add depth to a world. For those of us who choose to build a society from scratch, holidays and religions are often overlooked, cutting out a very important dynamic in the relationships between people of the same culture, as well as the relationships of people from differing cultures.

When I created the world hosting my Requiem for the Rift King series and The Fall of Erelith series, I had a lot of ideas relating to who my characters were and the society they lived in. In The Fall of Erelith, religion plays a huge role in the world and how people act and behave. Holidays, however, were something I didn’t pursue, not until later. When I thought about this, I came to one frightening conclusion:  I was apprehensive about including holidays in my fantasy world because I was afraid of offending people. Holidays are important to people and can bring out extreme opinions. It’s polarizing, and sometimes in a bad way. By including religion and holidays in my cultures, I had to be willing to face the potential fallout from fans and readers.

People care about their beliefs.

And it was for that reason I made a point to be very careful to include religion as an actual part of my fantasy world–not as a backdrop for extremist groups in the story or as an antagonist, but as something that impacts many characters on a daily basis. If real people care about their beliefs, fictional ones do as well.

Religion and its role in a society plays a huge part in how people think and grow. Holidays are a direct manifestation of people’s beliefs.

Sometimes, the lack of religion in a culture is the defining element of that culture. There are so many possibilities. Ignoring the impact of religion and holidays on a culture, I feel, is a mistake. I can’t tell you how to create a realistic culture that fits your world; culture, religion, and society is something that must be balanced. However, I’ll share how I approach creating a society and culture, complete with religions and the holidays birthed by the beliefs of people.

I begin the process by choosing a government type. Society and government are often closely tied together. For example, those who live within a junta will have beliefs surrounding the art of war. They may also have a religion relating to what happens to their souls after death. Consider the vikings; their belief system is closely tied to their war-like culture. The concept of Valhalla is a perfect example of how the culture of a people and its beliefs closely tie in with religion.

More peaceful regions and governments often have more benevolent beliefs. Theologies form their governments completely around their religions. By choosing the government type first, I can often look at a culture and figure out why that type of government works for them.

Then I consider what sort of religion matches with the culture. Piece by piece, a society is born.

Defining a religion is difficult; being honest, I do a great deal of research into real religions and I apply the theories and tenants of these religions to my fantasy creations. I don’t copy a religion from Earth, but I do look at the history of the religions of Earth and apply their development to my worlds.

It’s a very difficult line to walk. I want to create viable religions, but I want to respect the very real religions on Earth. This is part of why creating a fully-rounded culture is sometimes frightening for me. Have I delved too close to a real religion? I don’t want to offend people, but I want to tell stories with well-rounded societies. Once I began adding religions, holidays followed in its wake. People have holidays for many reasons. Some celebrate an event, such as a birthday. Christmas is the obvious example. While it’s a Christian holiday, other cultures have embraced some of the secular elements of the holiday. I considered that too. How would these holidays I’m creating impact those who don’t believe in the religion associated with the holiday? (And here is a key point: many holidays are associated with religious belief.)

When I create a culture, I determine the holidays based on the nature of the worshipers and people living there. A society heavily reliant on farming, for example, will have harvest holidays and planting holidays. These are causes for celebration–not necessarily religious in nature, but tied to their ethics, beliefs, and lifestyles.

When I’m creating a culture and functional society, I’m weaving a tapestry rather than identifying a single thread. Because of this, it’s one of the hardest pieces of worldbuilding for me to implement, as the beliefs of the people are truly what shape who my characters are. I’m not really creating a religion or a holiday, but rather a lifestyle.

And that, I feel, is why it’s worth the effort to create a culture complete with religion and holidays.

The Fear Chronicles: Which Holds are Barred?

I am a person who races to Google the moment I’m done watching a movie that is based on real events. I want to know what was true, what was embellished, and what was unabashed fabrication. I read about the events and the people, lingering over the photographs in particular. I go back and forth between photos of the actor and the actual person. How closely does the actor’s hairstyle match the person’s? How well does the 2010’s actress wear those 70’s glasses? What character is actually an amalgam of three people?

I like to think about why things get changed in the transition from reality to fiction, especially when reality seems interesting enough. I remember one particular movie (the name of which escapes me now), in which the main character had a daughter. In real life, she had a son. I wondered what the point was in changing the sex of the child—the child, who had no bearing on the story whatsoever. Was there a dearth of boy actors that day at the casting call?

Small or big changes interest me when it comes to playing around with nonfiction, and not just in relation to film. I recently finished reading 11/22/63 by Stephen King, which borrows from history. JFK, Jackie Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, Marina Oswald, and other real-life characters, are appropriated by King and interwoven into a time-travel novel. The basic premise involves the main character traveling back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination, in the hopes that other terrible events will not happen, such as the shootings of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In his afterward, King talks about the amount of research that went into this story, and he also mentions that he plays around with some events to suit the needs of his novel. He tries to be as true to actual events as possible, but there are things that he made up. There are some scenes in which he imagines what Lee and Marina say to each other, like when they give their baby daughter, June, a bath. He pushes his fictional characters into collision courses with Lee, Marina, Jackie, and even George de Mohrenschildt. Fictional and nonfictional characters meet, have conversations that never took place, and influence each other’s lives.

Now, you could say, “Of course all this happened. This is Stephen King we’re talking about. He writes fiction.” And that’s true, except usually he doesn’t write fiction based in and on reality, or some part of reality, anyway. Now, because I like doing the research when something is based in fact, and because I know that King is a fiction writer, I can come to the realization that how King is using real-life people is not “real.” It’s for effect, and for impact.

But I honestly don’t know how I feel about this. My conflicted feelings might be silly, considering how many “based on real events” movies I’ve watched and enjoyed, and considering how I understand that film is an art form, and sometimes real life doesn’t suit the art, so things have to change. Why should literature be any different? Why shouldn’t I be as on board with a novel or short story that borrows from reality, or a poem that borrows from reality? (Full disclosure: I have written such poems.)

I don’t know. There is something about looking at the cover of 11/22/63 and seeing a picture of the Kennedys in the motorcade in Dallas on the day that JFK dies that is strangely disconcerting, because it feels like I’m about to read nonfiction, but I’m not.

In Anne Lamott’s beautiful book about writing, Bird by Bird, she mentions a writer friend who basically says that everything is text, meaning, I suppose, that everything and anything in life can and should be used as fodder to write. No holds barred.

But still I am conflicted. Is it okay to put fictional words into the mouths of nonfictional characters? Is it okay to dress them up and position them like action figures to suit our own stories? Is it okay to imagine their lives—the parts that aren’t known by the general public, that aren’t recorded and cataloged— through our stories? And is it alright to appropriate an important moment (say, the JFK assassination) and paint around it with our own bright and fictional colors?

What do you think?

 

 

A Cryptic Tale

origamicraneCan a writer present history that is more exciting than a textbook but still discharges the essence of truth if he strays from absolute fact by embellishing a real moment with creative interpretation?

Jim Fergus based his novel, One Thousand White Women, the Journals of May Dodd, on one small incident in American history. In 1854 Cheyenne Chief Little Wolf traveled to Washington and proposed to President Ulysses Grant that the two cultures make a trade. The Indians, whose people were dying out, would give one thousand horses in exchange for one thousand white women. The women would procreate with Indian men, and the resulting children would be a bridge between cultures, ensuring a future for Indians within the sustaining white community. Never happened, of course, or you’d know a gazillion women claiming to be heroic descendents of this social experiment and likely demanding reparations loudly, or hiding the humiliating fact of their heritage and likely demanding reparations secretly, depending on whether they found the act courageous or shameful.

Fergus used this failed attempt at genetic meddling as the kernel for his book, but he changes the original suggestion to take place in 1874. The U.S. government accepts Little Wolf’s offer and rounds up women on the fringes of American society (no debutantes these future Indian wives): those in insane asylums, prisons, or the social bondage of being too homely to marry. From an insane asylum comes May Dodd, a young and progressive woman who has already exhibited unconventional characteristics by living out of wedlock with a man below her social standing and bears him two children. Her own family determines the obvious conclusion: she is mad, and they confine her to a mental institution where she is treated brutally. May volunteers to go West and become a Bride for Indians, as it’s the only way she can be released from the asylum.

The strange journey of her life with the Indians reflects a great deal of the actual history of the broken treaties between the US government and the Indian tribes they are trying to confine to reservations. May Dodd witnesses horrible acts on the part of American soldiers as well as Cheyenne warriors. She finds the “savage” lifestyle of the Indians more appealing than that of the White America that betrayed her. In the end, May learns that betrayal and savagery is the territory of all men, and skin color and culture have little hand in making anyone a noble being. Is Fergus’ book a twist of history? Of course, but in his hands he reveals both Indian and American societies, showing that they are closer in kind than either would admit. There is much truth in the betrayal of the Indians at the business end of government rifles and broken treaties, and in the narration of repugnant tribal savagery. May Dodd is the vehicle through which this mortifying period of history comes alive in ways that history books don’t achieve.

The historian Josephus, a first century Jewish scholar who lived in Roman controlled Judea, wrote the only known account of the siege of Masada. Masada was a fortress built on a desert mountaintop south of Jerusalem which in 70 C.E. held out against 10,000 well armed and provisioned Roman troops. More than 900 Jewish men, women, and children determined that they would not concede to Roman condemnation of their faith or control of their destiny, and chose instead a mass suicide pact, thus deflating Rome’s power. Josephus’ history discloses that two women and five children survived the massacre though no details exist. Museums in Israel and Wales maintain in their collections several artifacts from the siege: a scrap of plaid fabric, a woman’s sandals, an amulet, remnants of silver armor, incantation bowls.

From these few remains Alice Hoffman constructed The Dovekeepers, a story of four women whose resilience and extraordinary skills bear witness to the cruelty of the Romans and the ingenuity of the Jewish rebels who refuse to be conquered. Yael is the daughter of the master assassin who leads the Jewish band. Revka fiercely hides and protects her grandsons after the murder of their mother at the hands of Roman soldiers. Shirah uses her skill with magic and folk medicine to aid those in precarious health, especially women. Aziza secrets herself in the guise of a male and bests the young Jewish warriors at skills they cannot imagine a girl could learn. These women maintain the dovecote, an essential asset in keeping the Jewish community from starving. Hoffman admits that there is controversy over whether or not doves were actually kept at Masada, but in her book they represent a critical resource and the future.

History may be intricately folded like origami or cut like lace in attempts to tell only the most significant parts of an event and leave out the mundane details. Thus textbooks explain complex troop movements, the rank of leaders, and political intrigue but miss telling about the impact of war on the children and wives left behind, of the ordinary farmers, weavers, and sailors still trying to bring in their crops, sew coats, or transport goods. Common folk have little place in the annals of world history and are given short shrift, if any shrift at all, in history books. In the hands of deft wordsmiths, the truths of these ordinary lives come to light in rich and unexpected ways, exposing the full breadth of history, filling in the spaces between what historians find important and what people want to know.

 

Robert Morgan writes at the end of his novel Gap Creek:

I tell my students that you do not write living fiction by attempting to transcribe actual events onto the page. You create a sense of real characters and a real story by putting down one vivid detail, one exact phrase, at a time. The fiction is imagined, but if it is done well, it seems absolutely true, as real as the world around us.

 

I offer only scant apology to the reworking of history in my own stories. I am a storyteller who loves history and researching real incidents, real people. But if a detail would better tell my story with a bit of imaginative revision, then hand me the scissors and glue. You can always go read a history book about the same events. It is not meant for one genre to usurp the other but for each to complement the other, a kind of silk word embroidery on homespun.

Be well, friends.

The Writers Circle: Incorprating Nonfiction into Works of Fiction

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

Works of fiction often use elements of nonfiction. For example, Stephen King’s recent novel 11/22/63 borrows Lee Harvey Oswald, Marina Oswald, and JFK, and interweaves elements of their lives (both real and imagined) into a fictional narrative. How do you feel about this kind of appropriation? Do you think anything is fair game, even if the people you use or the events you reference are being changed for your own story-telling purposes? Do we owe anything to history to leave nonfiction out of our fiction?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

 

Do you have an idea you think would be a great topic for a future The Writer’s Circle post?  Do you have a question you’d like to ask our authors?  Fill out the form on our Contact Us page to share your ideas and questions.

 

Preparing a Novel for Publication – Preparation, Pre-orders, and Promotions, oh my!

Professional publication isn’t easy. Whether you’re traditionally published or self-publishing, you need to present yourself professionally. How your book looks, on the inside and out matters. How you promote your book also matters. Today, I’m going to walk you through how I, a self-publishing author, navigate the murky waters of publication while attempting to be as professional as I possibly can be.

I’m going to draw your attention to one important thing: If you act like a professional, treat yourself and others in a professional fashion, and treat your work like it is a professionally produced product, at the end of the day, you are a professional. It doesn’t matter if you spend $1,500 to produce a novel (like I do) or if you spend $0.00. Professionalism isn’t about budget. It’s about behavior, planning, and executing your publishing plans.

Having a budget helps, though.

I’m going to walk you through how I’ve been working on my upcoming novel, Winter Wolf, from start to finish, including tidbits and tips for a smooth release.

My Process:

  1. Outlining
  2. Drafting
  3. Editing
  4. Cover Art and back-of-cover copy
  5. Pre-Orders
  6. Promotions
  7. Formatting
  8. Publication

1: Outlining, 2: Drafting, 3: Editing

This is pretty self explanatory, so I’m not going to waste a lot of words on it and will instead jump straight to my unasked-for advice: Write your book, and make it as professional as you can. I hired two editors to help me whip Winter Wolf into shape. I’m working like some professional publishing houses do: the publication date is set when the book isn’t completed yet. Unless you are an experienced professional, do not do this. Deadlines like this are serious, and cannot be missed.

  • For most people, the pre-order and promotions phases will not begin until after the editing phase is completed. Your mileage may vary.
  • In this phase, professionalism is really important. Listen to your editors. Let them be picky. They’re improving your novel. Leave your ego at the front door, and always be polite.
  • If you aren’t using editors (not recommended!) then you should take extreme care and caution with your work. Use your word processor’s grammar checker, and confirm each and every rule. If you’re breaking a rule, you need to know the rule and why it’s acceptable to break it.
  • Use a synonym checker and master list of commonly misused words. Their and there are two different words! So are where, were, and ware.

Fun Fact: My outline for Winter Wolf was so detailed it was pretty much a first draft, which in turn makes the drafting and editing process much smoother. It took well over a week to completely detail the novel, make corrections, and do my developmental editing chores. As a result, the drafting and editing phase is well ahead of schedule.

4: Cover Art and Back-of-Cover Copy

Winter Wolf by RJ Blain This is the finished cover for my upcoming novel, Winter Wolf. Due to the importance of the cover art, I actually ordered the cover art from my artist, Chris Howard, in the very early stages of production. Once Chris started working on the cover, it took approximately a month to finish. The texting, commonly referred to as typography, was done independently with a different graphic designer.

A professional cover artist can help you create an attractive, compelling cover. But also remember that not all cover artists are graphic designers, and you want a graphic designer handling your typography.

Since the cover should tie to the novel, I did the back-of-cover blurb shortly after the cover art was completed. It took me about five hours to come up with my blurb, and I didn’t finalize it until I gauged the interest from some fans and readers.

Here’s the blurb I’m using:

The Hunted Wizard

When Nicole dabbled in the occult, she lost it all: Her voice, her family, and her name. Now on the run from the Inquisition, she must prove to herself—and the world—that not all wizards are too dangerous to let live.

The savage murder of a bookstore employee throws Nicole into the middle of Inquisition business, like it or not. Driven by her inability to save the young man’s life, she decides to hunt the killer on her own. Using forbidden magic to investigate the past, she learns that the murderer is in fact a disease that could kill the entire werewolf race.

Forced to choose between saving lives and preserving her own, Nicole embraces the magic that sent her into exile. Without werewolves, the power of the Inquisition would dwindle, and she could live without being hunted.

Nicole’s only hope for success lies in the hands of the werewolves she hates and the Inquisition she fears, but finding someone to trust is only the beginning of her problems. There are those who want to ensure that the werewolves go extinct and that the Inquisition falls.

But, if she fails to find a cure, her family—including her twin sister—will perish…

Why did I choose this blurb? I feel it has the important elements of a good blurb: It has a character who has a problem to solve. It tells a bit of what the story is about–but not too much. Finally, it hints at the consequences of the character’s failure, and what she gains should she succeed.

These are the types of blurbs that appeal to me, which is why I asked friends and fans for their opinions. I settled on this blurb because it resonates with me, and it’s also appealing to others who like the type of stories I write. That’s important–you want to write a blurb which attracts readers who enjoy the types of stories you write.

These were all marketing decisions, as the blurb is one of many weapons in my publication arsenal.

Tip: Professionals don’t insult the tastes of readers in their blurbs. The blurb is about the book, not you, your opinions, and whether or not you think books of whatever sub genre are boring. Exceptions may apply, especially in parody works.

5: Pre-order

Amazon recently opened pre-order functionality to self-publishing authors. Winter Wolf is my initial experience into the pre-ordering system. Here’s a very brief walkthrough of how it works from a writer’s perspective, and how to set it up:

1: Fill in the book data as normal.

However, this time, you have the option of marking a ‘finalized file’ or a ‘draft manuscript.’ For Winter Wolf, I am using a dummy manuscript of the approximate length of the actual book. The manuscript isn’t ready to be finalized, nor will it be ready until mid October. Most authors should not do this. I’m good at meeting my deadlines, and I’m experienced with doing so. If you are not the same way, absolutely do not start a pre-order unless you are 100% certain you can have the finalized manuscript ready on time. Amazon will ban those who fail to have their manuscripts ready from the pre-order system for one full year.

You do not want this.

Tip: Professionals meet their deadlines.

2: Select a date

Amazon and other pre-order services require the finalized manuscript two complete weeks prior to the novel’s official release date. Most services will ban you from pre-ordering if you fail to have the manuscript prepared on time. Yes, I’m repeating myself, but it’s really that important.

Buyers will be able to see your pre-order approximately 24 hours after submission, where they can click “pre-order” to buy the book. They’ll be charged for the book on the day of the novel’s release.

6: Promotions

Armed with your pre-order links, you can arrange any promotions you want without having the stress of doing a soft launch or needing to get links to your bloggers at the last minute. This is a huge relief, as someone who had to do this. My previous novel’s release was beyond hectic, as I didn’t have buy links until the last minute.

  • Research your promotion companies–there are great ones, and there are scams. Research, and don’t accept the first site you find as the final say. The hours you spend researching may save you a lot of grief and heartache later.
  • Many promotion firms require at least six to eight weeks to prepare for a tour or single-day blast promotion.
  • I’m using six different groups for promotion of Winter Wolf. I’m really proud of this novel, and I feel it is worth the investment.

Tips on Professionalism: When working with promotion groups, stay polite, if you’re asked for something, deal with it as soon as possible, and have patience. A single advertising campaign may take you hours to properly prepare.

7: Formatting

Sometime between the editing phase and the publication date, formatting the novel is necessary. You’ll need to format twice; once for the ARC, and once for the production copy. You may need to format three times, if you’re doing a print manuscript. From past experience, it takes me several hours to format a novel for publication, and I’m experienced enough to have streamlined the process.

  • The interior of your novel matters. Do it right. If you can’t, hire someone to do it right for you. If you don’t know how to do it right, learn–do not publish until you’ve mastered your formatting. Always check for errors if you’re converting files.
  • As with many things, plans included, ‘Keep it simple, stupid!’ applies–the simpler your formatting is, the less likely there will be problems over different devices.
  • My first formatting run is done a month prior to the novel’s release so I can send the book to reviewers. The second formatting run is for the finalized version, which will be done several days before my deadline for submission.

8: Publication

Two weeks prior to the official publication date, the finalized manuscript goes into all systems. At this stage, I’ll be completely done. On publication day, all I’ll have to do is sit back and watch.

That’s how my novel is being dealt with this time–a very drastic difference compared to how my other books were produced. This method won’t work for everyone. However, the basic principles of professionalism still apply, no matter how you approach completing your novel.

In short, these are the things I’d suggest to you if you want to carry yourself as a professional:

  1. Swallow your ego and correct your mistakes.
  2. Don’t argue with people helping you. Either use their advice or don’t, but listen and keep quiet unless you have a question.
  3. Always be polite–even if it means gaining a reputation of being old fashioned from saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ so much.
  4. If you can’t be kind to a reviewer of your book, don’t say a word.
  5. If you say you’ll do something, do it.
  6. Don’t miss your deadlines. (Excuses won’t get Amazon to overturn the 1 year ban from pre-ordering.)
  7. Edit your novel.
  8. Proofread your novel.
  9. Proofread your novel again. People are paying you for your book. You don’t want basic mistakes! (All books have them, just fix them when someone finds one.)
  10. Yet again, proofread your novel.

Good luck.

Writing fiction in layers results in more speed and less frustration

By Model Land Company, Everglades Drainage District (Everglades Digital Library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Model Land Company, Everglades Drainage District (Everglades Digital Library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Last week it struck me:  I’ve rarely read an article on how to write fiction—more specifically, how to actually put words down on the page!

When I started writing fiction regularly about eight years ago, I read many books and articles to help me create great plot, make dialog realistic, and strike the right balance between “show” versus “tell”.  I thought I was reading books and articles on how to write.  But instead I was actually reading books and articles on how to create great plot, how to make dialog realistic, and how to strike the right balance between show versus tell.

As a novice writer I’d sit at the keyboard for a couple hours and squeeze out two well-polished paragraphs that read as though they came straight from a book on the shelf of my local bookstore.  But the agonizingly slow pace raised self-doubt, and I’d quickly wind up with an unfinished manuscript of a story that I felt wasn’t worth telling.

Today I have a completely different approach to writing fiction compared to the past. Now I write my story in layers, resulting in a speedier process with overall reduced frustration and self-doubt.

Think for a moment about how a house gets built.  Most people don’t wake up with the idea to build a house and immediately run down to the hardware store to make a huge lumber purchase, or worse yet, buy a brushed-nickel faucet for the powder room.  In most cases building a home starts with an idea like desiring a 2-story, 4-bedroom colonial style home, then creating several hastily-drawn sketches, then more formalized measured drawings, then performing the rough framing/plumbing/electrical, then followed by the building shell until finally finishing up with the small details like soft pastel paint colors and finally that brushed-nickel faucet for the powder room.

Writing can be less painful if you write in layers:

Layer 1 – Outline

Start with a high-level outline.  I’m not talking about anything fancy here, so just go ahead and open a word processor and drop some bullet-point sentences on the page.  Re-arrange them.  Delete some.  Add new ones.  Get 10-20 sentences on paper in the right sequence that depicts the story you want to tell.  You can even insert page breaks after each sentence to visually depict the start of a new chapter.

  • Primary Lead attends wedding of his love interest to “speak up or forever hold his peace”

Layer 2 – Fleshing the Story Skeleton

Now go back to your word processor and start building in more bullet points to flesh out the story skeleton.  The objective here is not to write a polished product, but instead you just want words on the page:

  • Primary Lead attends wedding of his love interest to “speak up or forever hold his peace”
    • PL standing on church steps, conflicted whether to go inside
    • PL encounters another friend, Lauren, who challenges him on why he’s there
    • PL reluctantly goes inside, realizing he’s turned into “that guy”
    • PL doesn’t quite know his strategy, but feels this is his last chance for true love
    • Ceremony begins, bride looks beautiful, priest asks the infamous question to guests…

Layer 3 – Rough Carpentry

For me, this stage is where the real work begins.  However the frustration level is usually much lower because I can jump around to different parts of the story on different days, taking a sentence or two and writing a few paragraphs.  Maybe I spend fifteen minutes in one session, or two hours in another session:

Saturday morning arrived and I found myself standing on the steps of St. Bart’s Cathedral.  I was frozen, having now to decide whether this was really a good idea or not.  I felt a warm hand touch me on the shoulder.

“Kevin?” asked Lauren.

“Lauren!  What are you doing here?”

“I’m here to stop you from making a fool of yourself!”

It’s a sloppy mess and it won’t win me any awards, I agree.  But at least now I have something down on paper to react to when I come back to revise in another pass.

Layer 4+ – Revision

I generally find my full-length novel equates to about 20,000 words at this point in time.  What’s that, about 80,000 words shy?  Queue the self-doubt.  But alas, now you can begin seasoning your story and adding bulk.  Writing now gets even easier because you have something to react to:

Saturday morning arrived and I found myself standing on the steps of St. Bart’s Cathedral.  It was nearly six years to the day since I last stepped inside the church for my nephew Evan’s baptism.  But today was much different.  Today I was frozen, having now to decide whether this was really a good idea or not.

I stood on the granite steps for several minutes watching many smiling faces enter the church.  Every time the decorative brass doors opened, I could catch a whiff of the residual incense that burned earlier in the morning for Mr. Covey’s funeral.

I felt a warm hand touch me on the shoulder.  “Kevin?”

I turned to find Lauren with a tear on her cheek, and she immediately embraced me in a loving hug.

“You know, there’s still time to turn back…” she whispered in my ear.  “I’m here to stop you from making a fool of yourself.”

Iterate, iterate, iterate…

I’m skeptical whether there’s value to me in the lather, rinse, repeat directions provided with each bottle of shampoo.  When it comes to writing, however, I’m sold on the iterative approach to building long manuscripts.  For me, it’s invaluable to have something down on the page at each writing session to react to and revise.

How I use Microsoft OneNote as my writer’s notebook

In recent days I started to reap the rewards of a decision I made two years ago to utilize the Microsoft OneNote application as my writer’s notebook.  I use this software application to organize story concepts, manuscript outlines, character descriptions, dialogue snippets, and inspirational photographs for characters and settings.

Think of OneNote as an infinitely-sized, electronic version of a physical three-ring binder that contains one or more smaller-sized binders.  Within these smaller-sized binders you can insert and re-arrange single loose-leaf pages, separating the pages using adhesive section tabs.  Of course, pages and binders can be re-ordered on a whim when the need arises.  Now imagine having this binder with you on your laptop, tablet, mobile phone, or even all three!  In essence, this is the power of OneNote.

Within OneNote I create a new notebook for each new story, in addition to a more generic notebook for more nebulous ideas that pop-up throughout the week but are not yet solidified into an existing story I’m working on.

MS OneNote Notebook Example

Next, I’ll create a few new sections within the notebook, like Plot, Characters, Dialogue Snippets, etc.

MS OneNote Section Example

Lastly, I’ll create pages as needed to further separate content.

MS OneNote Pages Example

The real power of OneNote is in the type of content you can create within each page.  Unlike a word processor, in OneNote you can click anywhere on the page and begin typing, or inserting bulleted/numbered lists, or insert photographs, or insert sound clips, or draw with the mouse, or insert shapes, and so on.

MS OneNote Detailed Page Example

For me, OneNote is an indispensable tool to organize my writing.  What tools do you find useful?  Do you stick with a physical notebook, or do you use software for organizing your thoughts and ideas before writing?

Do creative writers rely on social media for self-validation?

One year ago I canceled my Twitter account, and all it took was a few taps on the keyboard.  Gone were the throngs of “Lit Chicks” from my life who somehow pounded out five novels each afternoon—and still had time to boast about it.

In the months following, I slowly removed myself from the majority of writing communities on Facebook and Google+.  Those abundant “Literary Agents” and “YA Authors” started to quietly fade into the background.  Words like “Thriller” and “Manuscript” etched in my mind’s eye were slowly erased.

It wasn’t long after that I then un-publicized my personal WordPress site—and stopped checking the response count hourly after each new post of a short story for the reply that would come from an agent to pluck me out of obscurity.  In fact, I even went so far as putting my site behind password-protection as to remove its content from the eyes of the general public.

I suspect in retrospect, I was subconsciously using social media to validate myself as a writer.  If I ran with that crowd, I was a writer.  If I was followed by writers, then I was a successful writer.  In reality, it was doing nothing more than hurting my writing by encouraging me to measure my writing achievements against a false yardstick.

Today I mostly keep my online explorations to the Today’s Author community—partly because I helped stand up the site, but mostly because I believe in the mission to foster a community of creative writers.

In childhood, we were forced to measure ourselves by comparison to our peers.  How many of us have thought, I’m a junior in Chemistry class, yet there are three sophomores in this class.  What did I do wrong?  They’re ahead of me!  It wasn’t until I was out of college that I had the epiphany that we’re all on our own journey, at different paces, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  And it applies to everything in life, whether education or our passion for creative writing.

For me, canceling Twitter, Facebook, and other social media accounts was the right decision for the path I wanted to travel.  And largely, it has afforded me the opportunity to write instead of thinking about writing.  Now when I’m stuck on dialogue or want to learn more how to balance exposition in my writing, I’ll search for content when I’m ready to consume it.

By no means am I trying to persuade you to take the same actions I have taken, but I would encourage you to self-evaluate whether, as a result of social media, you’re finding yourself in the middle of a marathon that you didn’t choose to run in.

Where is your line?

Over the years of blogging on a number of sites reaching varying audiences, I’ve been challenged with the question many bloggers have; “What, if anything is too personal to write about?”

My late husband didn’t like me to ever mention him or events around our family life which involved him, so I generally respected this; the closest I may have come was to write observations of a more general view on a topic or theme. But apart from that, not much was sacred.

I have more blogs than I would like to admit, some are kept more up to date than others, and some specifically for a purpose and left to stew for a time. I write under a few names, given the breadth of genres and audiences I have reached in the past. My reasoning siting my wish to market a certain brand of writing under one name and another under another, not wanting to water down or dilute the other should there be misunderstandings in the future. I know I am not alone with this reasoning as I have friends who may publish academic papers or articles under one name and fantasy or erotica (for example) under another.

Under these different blogs, I have shared some pretty personal things, my fears, guilt-ridden decisions, my doubts and my meltdowns. Although I have a thin line separating business and personal, its certainly not as strong, or defined as many others. Who I am, where I have come from, my experiences and all the nobly bits in-between is such a big part of my writing, that its difficult to separate. I do understand that this thought process doesn’t work for everyone and in no way am I suggesting that all writers need to be transparent with every meltdown they have, nor to hide every emotion they experience.

Where is “The Line”

I think I have hit mine, given the traumatic events from last year. I suddenly was unable to write – anything. It has taken me 9 months to feel confident enough to write articles, much less blog posts detailing emotions. Writing fiction seems a distant dream for me at the moment, as I struggle to deal with the raw emotions bubbling to the surface every day.

I’ve seen and read others blog and write about their experiences, whilst not exactly the same as mine, similarly horrific, and similarly heart breaking. I honour their bravery and had always thought I’d be the one to continue blogging and sharing myself; yet faced with the events from last year, I am unable to process and write about them on a private level, much less share it publicly.

I’ve been approached a number of times by various people suggesting that if I wrote my story, it would not only help others and help me in my healing process, but would stand the chance of being one of those great chic lit books many of us dream about publishing. I have no doubt it would break the hearts of readers as they journeyed though the character’s landscape; but I cannot begin to write it. I have hit my line… and I am as surprised as anyone to realise that I had a line.

I would suggest that the line is a personal thing, that there is no hard and fast rule as to what or where it is.  Trust your intuition as to discovering what and what it is and share only what you feel comfortable with.

Clarity and Connection

One of the beautiful things about blogging is the immediacy of connection with readers. Although writing has an intimacy, blogging, coupled with its networking ability provides feedback and best of all clarity

Writing will always be a part of who I am, and I understand that by expressing oneself through text comes strength and wisdom. I just wish I could flick to the end of the book and see if it all turns out ok.

Do you have a line? What or where is your line?  Do you share everything?  What the most weird or deeply personal thing you’ve ever shared on your blog or site with your readers?